Gay Republicans aren’t just a punch line anymore. Not one but three of them—Carl DeMaio in California’s 52nd District, Richard Tisei of Massachusetts’ 6th, and Dan Innis in New Hampshire’s 1st—will be running for Congress in the upcoming 2014 midterm elections.
These guys aren’t crazies or novelty candidates, either. While all three have tough roads ahead of them, facing fellow Republicans in the primaries followed by incumbent Democrats in November if they prevail, they’re legitimate contenders. Two years ago, Tisei came within a hair of unseating incumbent John Tierney. (2014 will be a repeat of that 2012 race.) Both DeMaio and Tisei have held political office in their respective states previously, and Innis was, until recently, the dean of the business school at the University of New Hampshire. All three of the seats they’re fighting for have made it onto lists of the most vulnerable House Democrats, and if any of them win, they’ll make history as the first Republican(s) to be out when first elected to Congress.
To be sure, the Republican Party has lagged far behind the Democrats on LGBT issues, as well as other issues of diversity and equality. In the past, this has resulted in some pretty ugly attacks against gay Republicans from prominent gay activists on the left. But you can’t have a healthy democracy without a minimum of two strong, functional political parties. In a country as diverse as ours, this means that both major parties need a variety of voices, and both of them need to appeal to more than just a single, ever-narrowing constituency. If the Republican Party continues to decline in relevancy, we’ll all suffer in the long term if we’re forced to default to a Democratic Party that doesn’t have to work at being better than the alternative.
With this in mind, I talked to one of the three candidates, Carl DeMaio, to ask the big question liberals always ask about gay GOPers: Why would an openly gay man ever be a Republican? DeMaio began by stressing that his orientation is only one facet of who he is. He’s also a reformer! He believes in individual freedom! Local control! Competition and the free market! (Seriously, it’s as if the guy were running for office or something.)
Then he talked with real passion about the need for gays to be inside of the Republican big tent. “Gay Democrats have it easy,” he said. “It’s easy—they’re standing in front of crowds who are already sold, getting ovations and pats on the back. Gay Republicans have to take a lot more heat—but it’s necessary to complete social change. To complete social change, you’ve got to go and talk to the holdouts.”
This isn’t a purely speculative matter, either. Last December, House Speaker John Boehner raised his voice in support of gay Republicans after one member of his caucus, Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia, called for the GOP to withhold financial support from openly gay candidates. The fact that they were even having such an argument is sad and shocking, but without gay candidates to provide a counterpoint, the virulently anti-gay mindset represented by Forbes could easily have gone unchallenged.
While the gay community may still have many reasons to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, the ground these candidates are trying to break, and the need for change within the GOP, ought to be reason enough not to dismiss them out of hand as hypocrites and traitors to LGBT causes.